The Cult of Precaution

The Cult of Precaution

Mini Teaser: The high priests of the European Commission invoke the arcane scripture of the Precautionary Principle to justify their environmental enyclicals--the wages of reason be damned.

by Author(s): Roger Scruton

The European Union is seeking a "common foreign policy", which will not be the policy of a nation-state, based in national interest and realpolitik, but a policy suitable to its transnational identity and universalist aims. Environmental protection will therefore be high on the agenda, and policy will be guided by principle rather than expediency, and shared concerns rather than national self-interest. Which principles, therefore, in relation to which shared concerns?

Early on in the debates over environmental protection, the European Greens began to refer to something called the Vorsorgeprinzip (Foresight Principle). This Principle appears to have begun life in pre-war Germany, and was invoked later in the 1960s as the blanket justification for state planning. Re-issued in the 1970s under the name of the Precautionary Principle, it is now being advocated at every level of European politics as a guide to regulation, legislation and the use of scientific research. Great Britain's prime minister has invoked it, addressing the Royal Society in 2002, when he told the assembled body of distinguished scientists that "responsible science and responsible policymaking operate on the Precautionary Principle." Yet nobody seems to know what the principle says. Does it tell us to take no risks? Then surely it is merely irrational, since everything we do has a risk attached. Or does it tell us to balance the benefits of risk-taking against the costs? Then it is merely reminding us of a fundamental law of practical reasoning. Or is it adding some new axiom to decision theory that will enable us to deal with the hazards of modern technology in a way that will safeguard the future of mankind? If this be the case, then we need a clear statement of what it says and clear grounds for believing it.

A footnote to the 1982 Stockholm environmental conference recommended the Precautionary Principle as the acceptable approach to scientific innovation--but did nothing to define it. Thereafter the principle was repeatedly mentioned in European edicts as authority for a creeping regime of regulation which ostensibly had the protection of the public as its rationale but which also had the stifling of innovation as its consequence. In 1998 a gathering of lawyers, scientists, philosophers and green activists in the United States produced the Wingspread Statement defining the principle thusly:

"When an activity raises threats of harm to the environment or human health, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically."

This is a definition of nothing, since any activity can be deemed to comply with it. Finally, in 2000, the European Commission published a 29-page communication on the principle, purporting to clarify its use, but again answering the need for a definition with a fudge. The principle, it said, may be applicable

"where preliminary scientific evaluation indicates that there are reasonable grounds for concern that the potentially dangerous effects on the environment, human, animal or plant health may be inconsistent with the high level of protection chosen for the Community."

The words "preliminary", "potentially", "may" betray the essential retreat from precision that this statement involves. And the reference to a "high level of protection chosen for the Community" naturally leads to the question, "chosen by whom?" The statement is in fact a license to forbid any activity that a bureaucrat might judge--on whatever flimsy grounds--to have a possible cost attached to it.

The astonishing fact is that, although nobody knows what the Precautionary Principle says, it has now become a doctrine of European law. A recent decision of the European Court of Justice, having invoked the Precautionary Principle, concluded that the government of Italy is justified in preventing the sale of gm food on the basis that "no human technology should be used until it is proven harmless to humans and the environment." Taken literally, that would forbid every innovation in food technology that we have recently witnessed. Personally, I am entirely in favor of a law that forbids non-biodegradable packaging, since I know that this is intensely damaging to the environment. But the ruling of the Court has not been applied to that case, since the attempt to apply it would bring our entire food economy to a standstill. Moreover, the ruling, because it forbids everything, permits everything too, since it compels us to construe everything that we do as an exception. The ruling can therefore be used arbitrarily to prevent whatever initiatives the bureaucrats momentarily take against, regardless of any serious study of the effects on health, on the environment or on the life of the planet. This is the inevitable result of making a meaningless nostrum into a rule of law.

But there is an underlying issue here that needs to be addressed. As the bureaucrats take over the task of legislation, and our European parliaments are reduced to public relations exercises, the law changes character. Instead of creating the framework in which human beings can take risks and assume responsibility for doing so, law becomes a universal obstacle to risk-taking--a way of siphoning responsibility from society and transferring it to the impersonal state, where it can be safely dissolved and forgotten. As soon as there is the faintest suspicion of risk, the bureaucrats will step in with an edict, in the form of a "directive" issued by the European Commission. These directives are non-negotiable commands, which cannot be amended by national parliaments. But nor can their authors be held to account for them. The Precautionary Principle justifies everything that they do, since they need nothing more than "preliminary" scientific evaluation, giving "grounds for concern" that the "potential" effects "may" be inconsistent with the "high level of protection" that the bureaucrats themselves have chosen.

The result is illustrated by the directive banning the use of certain phthalates, which are pvc softeners used in making children's dummies, teats and so on. The "preliminary" scientific evaluation consistent in slight evidence from one Danish researcher indicated that phthalates may be carcinogenic. His research has never been confirmed by peer review and was rejected by the European Commission's own scientific committee. However, the Precautionary Principle got to work on this non-evidence and converted it at once into conclusive grounds for panic. For what the principle really says, when examined in the context of its use, is this: "If you think there may be a risk, then there is a risk; and if there is a risk, forbid it." Once again we are dealing with a principle that forbids and permits everything. Its effect is both arbitrary and absolute, silencing all counter-argument. It is therefore an extremely effective political weapon, and can be used not only by bureaucrats, but also by all unrepresentative and unaccountable pressure groups, to enforce their point of view on the rest of us. Behind the edict forbidding phthalates there marches the regiment of self-appointed environmental guardians, who see the chemical industry as Public Enemy No. 1. Even if nobody gains from the edict, at least the industry that has invested so much in this product will suffer. And for the activists that result is a good in itself.

The Precautionary Principle clearly presents an obstacle to innovation and experiment. But there are deeper reasons for being troubled by it, reasons that bear on the very essence of human life and on our ability to solve practical problems. First, there is the tendency of the principle to disaggregate risks in ways that defeat the possibility of reasonable solutions. Risks are never single, nor do they come to us only from one direction or from one point in time. By not taking the risk of angering my child, I take the risk of dealing, at some later stage, with a spoiled and self-centered adolescent. All practical reasoning involves weighing risks against one another, calculating probabilities, ring-fencing uncertainties, taking account of relative benefits and costs. This mode of reasoning is instinctive to us and has ensured our extraordinary success as a species. There is a branch of mathematics--decision theory--devoted to formalizing it, and there is nothing in decision theory that looks like the Precautionary Principle. For the effect of this principle is to isolate each risk as though it were entirely independent of every other. Risks, according to the principle, come single-wrapped, and each demands the same response--namely--Don't! If, in obeying this command, you find yourself taking another risk, then the answer again is "Don't!"

The principle is therefore logically on a par with the command given by an American president to his senior civil servant: "Don't just do something, stand there!" But, as the president realized, standing there is not something that civil servants are very good at. Bureaucrats have an inveterate need to be seen to be doing something. The effect of the principle therefore is to forbid the one identified risk, while removing all others from the equation. What this means can be vividly seen from a recent instance. A European directive, responding to the slight risk that diseased animals might enter the human food chain, insists that all slaughter should now take place in the presence of a qualified vet, who must inspect each animal as it arrives at the abattoir. There is no evidence that veterinary examination in these circumstances is either necessary or (in the rare cases when infected animals come to the abattoir) effective. Nevertheless, the Precautionary Principle delivered its usual result, and the edict was imposed. Small abattoirs all over Britain were forced to close down, since their profit margins are as narrow as those of the farmers whom they serve, and qualified vets require fees that reflect their qualifications.

Essay Types: Essay